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Apps to steer you from moving violations -- on the sidewalk

September 29, 2010 |  7:51 am


Multitasking has become as commonplace as breathing air and circulating blood at the same time. But some tasks go together better than others.

Driving and dialing -- definitely not so good.

Walking and talking -- a little Star Trekkian, but becoming less and less odd, even when someone parks it behind your desk and starts talking out of the blue to no one in particular.

Walking and typing -- eh... There are apps to help with this task.

Let's get three things out of the way before we get to the apps.

1. The only kind of hand-involved communication permissible on California roadways is basically relegated to visual car-to-car exchanges, some more friendly than others. Yes, it's still illegal (and downright dangerous) in the state of California to type and drive.

2. We seemed to manage just fine without incessantly typing and talking. A little disconnectedness was more than acceptable; it was the norm. Face time was actually done face to face.

3. Neither of those points nor the potential dangers of lampposts stealthily lurking in plain sight and cars camouflaged in bright colors and shiny paint speeding by are likely to stop the most addictively connected of us from twalking -- texting, tweeting, e-mailing and the like while walking. Really.

So, what's a compulsive communicator to do? Stop typing and step away from the smart phone long enough to get to the parking structure?

As if!

There are oodles of apps that turn your talk into text and text into talk, including Text'nDrive, Vlingo and Dragon Dictation. We took a couple for a spin that focus on trying to keep you on the sidewalk and out of harm's way while twalking.

Mzi.pyhqlhyv.170x170-75 Walk N Txt (99 cents, iPhone)

What it is: This is an augmented reality app, offering the image of what's directly in front of you using the internal camera and overlaying a texting interface.

When you use it, you'll notice how really unsteady your hand is while you walk. Think hand-held camera work of most YouTube videos -- but you're watching while in motion.

The developer says on its website that version 1.5 has been submitted for approval. So look for an update soon.

What works: The interface is super simple. You can choose between white and black for the text color. Although you can manually type in a phone number, the app can access your address book since you probably don't know the numbers of half the people you're in touch with.

On iPhone 4, you can turn on the LED flash to illuminate the dark sidewalks you're not really paying attention to. (Nice inclusion, but you're really probably spotlighting yourself as an easy and distracted target for evildoers.)

What doesn't: Unless you are a touch typing genius on a virtual keyboard, you've got to look at the keys, which are against the standard solid gray. You're left to engage your background eyesight -- you know, watching the world ahead of you through the haze of focusing on the foreground. The viewing method you might use to stare at someone nearby without actually staring.

Here's where BlackBerry and phones with real keypads beat phones with virtual keyboards beat out other phones. You can mostly memorize the key location or estimate and adjust your typing where there is a keyboard that pushes back. I flew at texting on my old average non-smart phone and never had to look down.

Another knock is that the app works only in portrait orientation. One might have better luck with the two-thumb hunt-and-peck method that is easier in landscape. Of course, with portrait, you get a longer view than you might in landscape.

Walk N Txt, like all similar iPhone apps, is also bound by Apple-imposed limitations. You still have to send the text through the native SMS, which is not transparent.

Bottom line: Room for improvement. It probably won't keep you from unwittingly walking off the curb, but it won't lead you into traffic any sooner.


Road-SMS Road SMS (free, Galaxy S Android phone):

What it is: This is a similar app, using augmented reality, offered by Samsung for its Galaxy S phones. (It seems to work on other Android phones like Incredible and Droid.)

What works: You can use it in landscape. The keyboard has enough space for distracted digits to have a chance of hitting the right ones. And it's transparent.

Road SMS also taps into the phone's contact list.

When you hit send, the message actually goes. No other apps, no delay.

What doesn't: It works only in landscape mode. We prefer flexibility and choice.

It's limited to 80 characters, which could be a blessing for some but a challenge for others.

Bottom line: It's a clever attempt like the Walk N Txt app, but I'd probably take my chances texting the old-fashioned way, with blind abandon.

While I didn't step into traffic using these, I also didn't see the Don't Walk hand or countdown flashing at me or the car turning the corner at the last minute or the bike barreling down the sidewalk. But I did catch an array of gum and gook on the sidewalk in my glazed-over view while composing my earth-shattering text. These actually take a little more focus than the average text.

Ultimately, it's a stretch to say you can walk safely while texting with any of these apps, unless danger is on the sidewalk right in front of you. And if you see it in the phone, you're right up on it. No one holds a phone up like a window while tapping; they hold it down. But you might catch an open manhole just in time to curse properly.

 -- Michelle Maltais



Top photo: Smart-phone users send text messages as they walk along a subway tunnel in Beijing. Credit: Franko Lee/AFP/Getty Images 

Lower photo: We try typing using Road SMS at the desk before venturing into the street. Credit: Michelle Maltais / Los Angeles Times